[The Penitent] would be the painting of mine that I think seems the most Florentine. And, well, of course I’d want it in the Uffizi.
A captivating portrait imbued with conceptual wit and technical virtuosity, John Currin’s The Penitent is a stunningly executed work that exemplifies the artist’s capacity to mine art history and reinvent the grand tradition of figurative painting through various reconsiderations of the female form. Depicting the artist’s wife and muse, Rachel Feinstein, Currin’s portrait takes on a venerated art historical vocabulary featuring the penitent Mary Magdalene, a subject that gained popularity from sixteenth-century Italy. The image of Magdalene lifting her teary eyes to heaven symbolized the sacrament of penance; on the other hand, its popularity was also associated with the Penitent Magdalene’s implied sexuality, as narrative obliged her to be portrayed with a passive gaze of ecstasy, long flowing hair, and a semi-naked body with partially exposed breasts. In his play on the subject, Currin engages in a rare departure from his more explicit and provocative paintings: his wife is fully clothed in an loose sweatshirt with a crew neck, her ambiguous expression teetering between languid amusement and teasing expectancy. Melding sharp realism with a shrewd subtext rooted in the absurdity of religious imagery, the present work imparts the very best of Currin’s formal evocation of the darker undercurrents and idiosyncrasies that have saturated social conventions from the beginning of human civilization. At once elegantly charming and mischievously provocative, The Penitent was featured on the promotional postcard of Currin’s solo exhibition at the Museo Stefano Bardini in Florence in 2016, ranking amongst the artist’s most iconic dialogues with the conundrum of painting.
Executed in 2004, The Penitent was painted just after Currin’s mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2003, which confirmed his position as a major voice in contemporary art. Born in the same year as Roy Lichtenstein’s first show at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, Currin belongs to a lineage of artists who challenged traditional perceptions of female beauty. Like Lichtenstein, Currin explored innovative ways of depicting women in the context of his own time, relying on accepted forms only to subvert them. His earliest paintings were based on portrait heads as in a high school yearbook – silent faces frozen in expression. Currin’s 1992 one person show at Andrea Rosen Gallery consisted of small format paintings of mostly older women, denying viewers of the glamorized objects of desire that they were so accustomed to. In the mid-1990s, Currin moved on to directly interrogate a more stereotypical view of women, developing an erotic pin-up style with comically busty women measuring their breasts, flirting with suitors or posing in sultry positions. From this satirical view of gender concepts, Currin moved on to his greatest innovation, which emerges directly from his interest in the Renaissance masters and re-directs art history and commentary back to discussions of painting’s timeless relevance. In describing Currin’s “collision of naked, real-life women and old-master nudes”, Robert Rosenblum asserts that “[Currin’s] fusion of venerable past and vulgar present comes out as a perfect hybrid that lives in both worlds” (Exh. Cat., Chicago, Museum of Contemporary Art, John Currin, 2003, p. 15).
Formally, Currin’s The Penitent thrives on the anachronism of academic painting. In its classical composition, virtuosic mastery of light and depth, and remarkable delineation of contour and masterful rendering of flesh and posture, The Penitent reveals Currin’s extraordinary painterly skill and adoption of a technique first perfected during the High Renaissance. Starting from around 1998-1999, Currin embarked on rigorous studies in the formal technique of underpainting popularized in Southern Europe in the seventeenth century, in which preliminary layers of light or dark pigment are employed to make up the basic form of the composition prior to the inclusion of regular colour tones. The application of a white undercoat imbues the surface hues with a particular warmth and suggestion of depth: as Alison Gingeras notes, the technique “allowed Currin to flaunt his growing virtuosity by generating naturalistic modelling and credible vitality” (Alison M. Gingeras, "John Currin: Pictor Vulgaris", in Kara Vander Weg and Rosie Dergan, Eds., John Currin, New York 2006, p. 41). The glowing translucency in skin tone and delicately flushed cheeks visible in The Penitent indicate the remarkable effectiveness of this technique in suggesting life-like reproductions of flesh and facial attributes, resulting in a portrait of incredible verisimilitude.
Currin’s labour-intensive, niche mode of Renaissance underpainting enables him to render his figures with heightened naturalism and vitality, allowing him to evade pastiche-like irony in favour of a true engagement with medium. His unflagging commitment to technique and medium references the antiquated formal practices of the Old Masters and aligns him within a conservative tradition of academic figurative painting: indeed, when The Penitent was hung amongst the permanent collection of the Museo Stefano Bardini in Florence in 2016, the work created a natural and poetic dialogue with the sculptures, busts, and paintings of antiquity. When asked if he could leave one of his works in Florence, Currin responded: “I think the picture of my wife – The Penitent, the one used on the exhibition’s promotional postcard – it seems to me a quite Florentine painting. The edges are very Florentine. I’ve noticed, even in my hotel here, in the little decorations, that it’s a Florentine thing to be very precise with one’s edges. That would be the painting of mine that I think seems the most Florentine. And, well, of course I’d want it in the Uffizi” (the artist cited in: Mary Gray, “John Currin in Florence: An interview with the American artist”, in The Florentine, 13 June 2016).
Embodying both regal refinement and beguiling frivolity, The Penitent portrays Rachel Feinstein’s recognizable features – wide-set eyes and short wavy golden hair, on top of which perches a crown of flowers wrapped in organza. The flowers, representing fragrance, may be an allusion to Mary Magdalene’s act of pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet; while the exquisitely rendered organza material recalls the translucent flowing fabric in Botticelli’s depiction of Magdalene in The Lamentation of the Christ. Doe-eyed, demure and dainty, almost cherubic, Currin’s The Penitent subverts the 2,000-year-old portrayal of the Mary Magdalene as a repentant sinner and prostitute, even raising her to the status of the Virgin Mary by setting her against a background of Marian blue. The angelic and idealised aura of saintly purity, however, is much thwarted by the large kitsch furry cushion on which Ms. Feinstein reclines. At once endearing, tenderly beautiful, and unresolvedly bizarre, The Penitent languishes gracefully between high-art and mass culture, the ancient and the contemporary, the virgin and the prostitute, the saint and the sinner, metaphorically contemplating a world of eternal contradictions and manifesting as one of the most accomplished works in Currin’s idiosyncratic oeuvre.